April 30, 2015

Robin of Sherwood: "Robin Hood and the Sorcerer, Part II"

It's one hour later on 28 April 1984, and time for part 2 of "Robin Hood and the Sorcerer". The first two episodes of Robin of Sherwood were originally broadcast as a made-for-television film, whereas internationally and on the official DVD releases it's been split out into two 50-minute episodes. That's how I've recently rewatched them, and correspondingly how I've elected to review them.

Sir Robert de Rainault, the Sheriff of Nottingham, uses the stolen silver arrow of Herne the Hunter as bait to lure Robin Hood into a trap. When that attempt fails, with Robin winning an archery tournament and reclaiming the arrow, the devil-worshipping Simon de Belleme comes to the Sheriff with an offer to kill Robin for him, taking Maid Marian as his captive in return.

This second part falls broadly into two halves. The first sees Robin infiltrate Nottingham to compete for and win Herne's arrow. The second sees Robin travel to Belleme's coastal keep to rescue Marian. It's testament to the strength of the episode that each half is fairly different in tone - one fairly light and adventure-based, and the other quite dark and foreboding - yet both fit together remarkably well as a single episode.

The Princess Blade (2001)

It is several centuries into the future. Yuki, the most talented young member of the Takemikazuchi assassin clan, discovers that the clan's current leader murdered her mother. On the run from her fellow ninjas, she hides in the home of a reluctant former resistance leader. While they share a bond, and tentatively moves towards a romance, neither of their pasts is willing to let them go so easily.

The Princess Blade is an odd little Japanese movie. It was clearly made on a very small budget, and it spends its money judiciously on elaborate sword fights in forests for each of the film's three acts. In between there's a hell of a lot of talking but very little showing.

It's set centuries into Japan's future, however there's one shot in the entire movie that actually reflects that future society. There's a rebellion against the totalitarian government, although we never see any acts of rebellion and don't ever see the government. The film focuses in part on a clan of katana-wielding assassins, however they spend most of their time trying to assassinate each other.

April 29, 2015

The Pull List: 29 April 2015, Part I

Last month Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles grabbed a lot of attention with its cliffhanger ending that appeared to show Donatello beaten to death by Bebop and Rocksteady. It's probably not a huge spoiler to reveal that, like most readers suspected, Donatello isn't quite dead yet, but whether he survives or slips away is still something open to question. Which way his spirits goes is one of the core elements of issue #45, out this week from IDW.

I've always been a huge fan of the Ninja Turtles, yet it's been a weird sort of love that's encompassed multiple television cartoons and the Steve Barron feature film yet never really extended to the original comic book. I honestly wouldn't be able to tell you why: this issue is a lot of fun, with distinctive art styles to separate the real world and Donnie's near-death experience, and a wide variety of appealing animal-martial artist hybrids.

The storyline is, of course, in full flight, and that makes entirely following the plot a little tricky. On the other hand this is issue #45, so a little disorientation with starting here is to be expected. All up, it was a really enjoyable read. It does reek a little bit of pulling the football away just as Charlie Brown's about to kick it ("Donatello's dead!! Haha, no he's not!"), but there's enough else here to paper over any faults. (3/5)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #45. IDW. Script by Tom Waltz. Story bu Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow and Tom Waltz. Art by Mateus Santalouco and Charles Paul Wilson III. Colours by Randa Pattinson.

Under the cut: reviews of Brides of Helheim, Hellbreak, Jem and the Holograms, Judge Dredd, Quantum and Woody Must Die, TMNT: New Animated Adventures and Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye.

Blake's 7: "Deliverance"

It's 20 March 1978, and time for episode 12 of Blake's 7.

The Liberator observes a spacecraft break up in the atmosphere of the planet Cephlon. While on the surface trying to rescue the ship's sole survivor, Jenna is kidnapped by the local primitives. When the survivor wakes up on the Liberator he holds Blake and Cally hostage. Meanwhile Avon, Gan and Vila's hunt for Jenna is sidetracked when Avon meets a woman who thinks he's a good.

Once again we have a story of two halves, but at least this time they're interwoven throughout the episode so it isn't quite so weird to sit through. The only problem left is that one of the halves - Avon becoming the salvation for a long-dead civilization - is actually pretty terrible television. I sense the influence of script editor Chris Boucher here. While it's an awful storyline (a young woman who is the latest in generations of people left to wait for someone to activate a rocket containing the genetic banks of a dying race mistakenly believes Avon is a god) it does have a remarkable number of funny lines. Blake's 7 is always at its best when Avon and Vila engage in banter, and this episode has a truckload of it.

April 28, 2015

Lucy (2014)

In Luc Besson's film Lucy, an unwilling drug mule (Scarlett Johanssen) develops extraordinary mental powers after she overdoses on the experimental drug she is supposed to be carrying.

It's possibly one of the stupidest science fiction films I have seen in quite a while, and it appears to very proudly wear that stupidity on its sleeve. It even hires Morgan Freeman to explain to the audience its faulty, wrong-headed ideas of how brains work. I'm being literal with that, by the way: the film actually requires Morgan Freeman to deliver a lecture to the audience explaining at length the sorts of weird telekinetic effects the title character is going to generate later in the film. With the science being complete bullshit, the term "info-dump" has never been more appropriate. Why the film didn't simply hand-wave what happens to Lucy I don't know - certainly it would have made for a much better movie.

Once you jump over this enormous hurdle, however, there's actually a lot of fun to be had. It's a ridiculous movie, but that means ridiculous chase scenes and action sequences, mean Korean gangsters and violent shoot-outs. It's just critical to your enjoyment that you never think, since it's not just the science underpinning the plot that frustrates but the plot itself.

Robin of Sherwood: "Robin Hood and the Sorcerer, Part I"

It's 28 April 1984 and time for Robin of Sherwood.

Years after his father was killed in an attempted rebellion, Robin of Loxley (Michael Praed) and his best friend Much are captured by soldiers for poaching the king's deer. After escaping from Nottingham Castle with a group of outlaws, Robin is confronted by the god-like figure Herne the Hunter and discovers his destiny to defend England and its people from those who seek to oppress them.

Robin of Sherwood is, for me, a high water mark for Robin Hood adaptations. It was an iconic series of 1980s British television, for a number of reasons, and for me it's one of the most distinctive and effective tellings of the Robin Hood myth I've ever seen. It works because it treats the myth with an uncharacteristic seriousness, and because it blends medieval adventure with outright fantasy. This isn't just a story of a bunch of forest-dwelling outlaws robbing from the rich: it involves pre-Christian British mythology, demon-worship and witchcraft, magic, illusion and golems. It's pretty much exactly how one should approach this kind of well-worn story: bold ideas, a fresh angle and a well-honed, high-class production.

April 27, 2015

NES30 #26: Battletoads

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

Let's take a break from platform games for a moment to appreciate another fabulous genre of the 1980s and early 1990s: the side-scrolling beat'em'up. It's a pretty simple concept: the player controls a character as they walk from left or right across a scrolling environment while beating up waves of enemy fighters, whether with bare fists and feet or with swords, knifes, what-have-you. The most famous example of the genre is likely Double Dragon. One of the most enjoyable examples on the NES was Battletoads, a 1991 beat'em'up produced by English developer Rare.

Judging the New 52: March 2015

March 2015 marked, for all intents and purposes, the end of DC's New 52 initiative. The line-wide reboot commenced all the way back in September 2011 with the launch of 52 all-new monthly titles, and has continued over the past three-and-a-half years. In April and May DC is going through a massive cross-over storyline titled Convergence, and when regular service resumes in June there will be a whole new raft of new titles launched and the New 52 masthead is being abandoned (although the fictional universe is thankfully not being rebooted again).

Of the 52 monthly titles launched in September 2011, 11 of them have survived to continue in June. An additional 14 books that were launched subsequent to 2011 are continuing as well. In the meantime there are a total of 67 monthly books that started between September 2011 and late 2014 that didn't survive to the end of the initiative. As far as comic book publishing goes, that's not a bad hit rate: 92 books all told, with about 27 per cent making it through to the post-New 52 line-up.

April 24, 2015

Blake's 7: "Bounty"

It's 13 March 1978, and time for episode 11 of Blake's 7.

Blake (Gareth Thomas) and Cally (Jan Chappell) attempt to infiltrate a secure facility to rescue Sarkoff, the exiled former President of Lindor - an independent colony world now in danger of falling into Federation control. Meanwhile a passenger ship in orbit has put out a distress call to the Liberator - but is everything truly as it seems?

Like "Breakdown", "Bounty" is a curious episode that combines two narratives without every really pulling them together or relating them in any functional way. On the one hand you have Blake's attempt to convince a forlorn history-obsessed politician to return to his home planet. On the other you have a group of bounty hunters invading the Liberator and capturing the crew. Either could have formed a full episode in its own right, but instead they're both oddly truncated and awkwardly jammed together.

The Most Beautiful (1944)

A few weeks ago I watched and reviewed Sanshiro Sugata, the debut film from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Watching it was part of a new mid-term plan: to actually watch and review all of Kurosawa's feature films in order, and get a proper understanding of his style and his particular talent for filmmaking and visual storytelling. Sooner or later I'll get to his most famous works like Seven Samurai and Rashomon, but here we are with his second film: the 1944 drama The Most Beautiful.

Of course in 1944 Japan was fighting a war in the Pacific against the USA, Australia and other allied nations. As a result there was a strong demand from the government for propaganda pictures: films that would keep the general population hopeful and driven towards the war effort. Unlike other major directors like Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa was not enlisted in the Imperial Army. Instead he was required to fight the war from Toho Studios. Initial plans were for Kurosawa to direct an action film about Japanese fighter pilots, but as the war developed and Japan's situation became grim he was instead told to write and direct this: a drama about a dormitory of young women who manufacture precision optics for the armed forces.

April 23, 2015

Into the Storm (2014)

So: Into the Storm. The lives of a TV documentary crew, a high school deputy principal and his estranged sons, and a pair of clueless thrill seekers collide when an unprecedented series of tornadoes strike a small American town. I suppose it had been 18 years since Jan de Bont's Twister was in cinemas, so maybe it was worth having another crack at a tornado-centric disaster film.

Then again, maybe it was not. It turns out that Into the Storm is a disaster in more ways than one, as it features bland and broadly-drawn characters, a loose and inconsequential storyline, towering piles of genre stereotypes and a seemingly confused attitude towards what sort of film it wants to be. Its director, Steven Quayle, worked as second unit director to James Cameron on Titanic and Avatar, and before that in various capacities on The Abyss, Terminator 2 and True Lies. I assume he wasn't paying attention back then, because the direction on this film is bizarrely amateurish.

The Pull List: 22 April 2015, Part II

Thus far I have been entirely avoiding Convergence, DC Comics' massive two-month event series in which all the various alternative and historical renditions of the DC Universe undergo a highly self-indulgent mash-up. A weekly core series makes up the bulk of the event - but bizarrely seems focused on setting up their forthcoming monthly series Earth 2: Society more than anything else. Beyond that, a series of two-issue miniseries throw different characters and setting together in a sort of "what if?" set-up.

The event was conceived to paper over any disruptions in the editorial move from New York to Los Angeles, and given the fairly tedious concept (which Marvel appear to be set to duplicate soon in Secret Wars) I was happy to give the whole thing a miss and save a bit of money for the next two months. Then DC published Convergence: Hawkman. Damn it.

I have a bunch of weaknesses when it comes to the DC Universe. One of them is Hawkman: I just love the character. I love the look, and I love the various confused incarnations. I have collected entire runs of 1980s and 1990s series focused on the character, including Hawkman, Hawkgirl and Hawkworld. The New 52 incarnation of the character was the worst-ever, and yet I still found myself buying the book. Marketing types have a term for this kind of behaviour: irrational loyalty.

Of course, this being a mash-up comic there has to be another DC property to get shoved up into Hawkman's face, and somehow they managed to pick another one of my weak spots: Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. Or, at least, the advertising copy said they did. There's not very much Kamandi action going on here as far as I can see. Instead there's a lot of self-aware playing with plot elements from the late 1980s instead: Thanagarian politics, shadow wars and so on.

This is an unabashed exercise in nostalgia, from Jeff Parker's fairly direct and simplistic script to Hawkworld artist Timothy Truman's visuals. There's definitely a place for this; sometimes it's nice to just revel in something that reminds us of something we love. I do find it interesting that this one issue has the most likeable and engaging version of Hawkman and Hawkwoman in about a decade. (3/5)

Convergence: Hawkman #1. Written by Jeff Parker. Art by Timothy Truman.

Under the cut: reviews of Black Widow, Divinity, Ivar Timewalker, Kaptara and Ninjak.

April 22, 2015

Blake's 7: "Breakdown"

It's 6 March 1978, and time for episode ten of Blake's 7.

Gan begins to suffer blinding headaches, which then send him off into a homicidal rage. With his limiter implant failing, Gan desperately needs surgery before he dies - but can the Liberator get him to a medical station in time?

"Breakdown" is a strange episode in that the narrative is split cleanly into two distinct halves, and neither of them get sufficient screen time to work. The first half is dominated by Blake's race to get the Liberator to an independent scientific research station - the blandly named XK-72 - before the pressure in Gan's brain kills him. The second half is dominated by events at XK-72 itself, and whether or not Avon is about to jump ship and abandon his crewmates for good. The episode's a hell of a mess, all things considered, and not very enjoyable to watch.

The Pull List: 22 April 2015, Part I

All the way back in 2000 Mark Waid and Barry Kitson collaborated on a science fiction comic titled Empire. It depicted a world beyond where most superhero stories end, in which a Doctor Doom-style villain has not only defeated and killed all the heroes but taken over the world. It wasn't the story of how he, Golgoth, was finally overthrown. It was the story of how he remaineded in power. Despite having a great hook, beautiful art and a strong script, it folded after just two issues. DC Comics came to the rescue, and published an entire six-issue miniseries by Waid and Kitson, which was also collected into a trade paperback. That was it, though. Until now.

Empire Uprising is a new series, reuniting Waid and Kitson with Golgoth. It's been serialised online at Thrillbent Comics, and now it's also coming out in a monthly print edition via IDW.

It has been a year since the death of Golgoth's daughter, and while the entire planet observes a compulsory three minutes' silence a team of resistance fighters make a play to invade Golgoth's palace. Meanwhile the supreme leader's lieutenants begin to question whether their master's attention to his rule may be slipping.

This is a strong, reasonably self-contained opening chapter that carefully sets up both the new storyline and re-establishes the kind of world in which it is set. Readers of 2000 AD will feel right at home with this book, thanks to its Dredd-like combination of satire and violence. Readers who can remember the original Empire will feel right at home - I certainly did. (4/5)

Empire Uprising #1. IDW. Written by Mark Waid. Art by Barry Kitson.

Under the cut: reviews of Drones, The Infinite Loop, The Life After, and Uncle Scrooge.

April 21, 2015

Battle in Outer Space (1959)

A series of natural disasters across the Earth are revealed to be the work of alien invaders, preparing to take over the planet from their secret moonbase. Etsuko Shiraishi and Kenjiro Adachi, two scientists who defended the Earth against the dreaded Mysterians, reunite to lead a mission to the moon in order to destroy the alien base before it is too late.

Battle in Outer Space is the 1959 sequel to The Mysterians, the 1957 science fiction drama directed by Ishiro Honda. That film had the alien Mysterians actually arrive on Earth and attempt to steal the planet's women for breeding purposes. The aliens in Battle in Outer Space are never actually seen in person: they maraud the skies in flying saucers and simply want to wipe out the humans and colonise the planet for themselves. As a result this is a much more simplistic film than its predecessor, but it does retain a sort of naive charm that a lot of viewers might find quite charming.

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Daedalus"

It's 14 January 2005 and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

The Enterprise plays host to Emory Erickson, the inventor of the transporter. As Trip (Connor Trinneer) aids Erickson in his latest experiments in long-range matter transportation, a strange etherial presence begins to appear in various parts of the ship - often with fatal results. It soons becomes clear that Erickson has not been honest about the nature of his mission, and the entire crew may be in danger.

I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. After despairing at the drawn-out and fairly tedious continuity-laden trilogies of Season 4, I get a nicely self-contained episode for once. Sadly it's not a very good one, suffering from a predictable storyline and some very inconsistent character work. The regular cast appear to do their best, as do guest stars Bill Cobb and Leslie Silva, but they're fighting an uphill battle. The bottom line is that Ken LaZebnik and Michael Bryant's script isn't good or original enough to make the battle worthwhile.

April 20, 2015

NES30 #27: Duck Hunt

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

Let's be honest: Duck Hunt had turn up somewhere on this list. For many gamers the title was packaged in with the NES, making it - alongside Super Mario Bros - one of the most commonly-played games on the console. It had its origins in a 1976 electronic toy designed by Gunpei Yokoi and Masayuki Uemura, the Beam Gun. When that toy became a massive commercial hit in Japan it seemed logical to re-develop the concept for Nintendo's first home console, the Famicom. From there it was a quick translation job to release the game for the NES as well.

Carrie (2013)

Carrie White (Chloe Grace-Moretz) is a shy, awkward girl. At home she is terrorised by her obsessively religious mother (Julianne Moore). At school she is bullied by her classmates. She is also beginning to exhibit mysterious telekinetic powers that only seem to be growing more powerful each day. Put all three elements together, and it's a pretty clear recipe for disaster.

Carrie, written by Stephen King and first published in 1974, sold more than a million copies on its initial release. This success led United Artists to produce a feature film adaptation in 1976. This film was directed by Brian De Palma and starred Sissy Spacek and John Travolta. It too was a solid commercial success, and remained an iconic and popular horror movie for decades since its release. As a successful MGM/UA production, of course, it eventually became ripe for a remake. Carrie returned to the screens in October 2013 with Chloe Grace-Moretz (Kick Ass) starring and Kimberley Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) directing.

A few months after this Carrie remake was released, MGM released a remake of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop. I saw that film in the cinema, and have only caught up with Carrie now: one film reminded me an awful lot of the other.

April 19, 2015

War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg's rather loose adaptation of the popular H.G. Wells novel, is not really a very good film. What it is, however, is a rather excellent collection of scenes and set pieces. Each one is meticulously crafted, emotionally effective, and visually arresting. Watched on their own merits, they demonstrate a world-class director showcasing the sorts of moments and thrills upon which he built his reputation. Watched altogether, and they reveal a rather messy and oddly truncated failure: one of those odd films where the parts are worth more than the whole.

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a New Jersey crane operator who flees the city with his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) when a freak lightning storm strikes and a massive alien tripod climbs up from beneath the ground and starts killing everyone in sight. As they attempt to journey from New Jersey to Boston, and reunite the kids with Ray's estranged ex-wife, they discover an alien invasion on a global scale.

One thing I have always loved about War of the Worlds is its intimate scale. The film does include several sequences of large-scale carnage and destruction, but its point of view is strapped tightly to Ray and his kids Rachel and Robbie.

April 18, 2015

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

I am a sucker for a good Robin Hood story. There's something about the narrative, the setting and the characters that simply grabs my attention and warms my heart. For me the gold standard remains Richard Carpenter's ITV television series Robin of Sherwood, closely followed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. That said, I still have a lot of affection for Kevin Reynold's 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It's a film that continues to get a lot of mild ricidule, but despite several faults it remains a well-produced and entertaining movie.

Robin of Loxley (Kevin Costner) returns to England from the Crusades accompanied by Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a Moor whose life he saved while in captivity. Upon his arrival Robin learns that the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) has had his father killed and his family lands confiscated. Soon Robin leads a growing band of thieves in an attempt to unseat the Sheriff and prevent his plot to overthrow King Richard I and rule the whole of England.

April 17, 2015

The Pull List: 15 April 2015, Part II

Marvel has been having tremendous success with its latest iteration of Thor. Thor himself has lost faith in his ability to be worthy of his own name, and as such has lost the power to hold his magical hammer Mjolnir. In his place has come a mysterious woman who's taken the hammer and started fighting the villainous Roxxon corporation, the dark elf Malekith, and even Asgard's own ruler Odin - who has not taken kindly to a woman usurping his son's role.

Issue #7, published this week, does not reveal the identity of the new Thor. It does, however, provide some excellent plot developments in other areas. The highlight is definitely a knock-down brawl between the new Thor and the Destroyer - which has been sent by Odin to retrieve Mjolnir at any cost.

There's an over-arching narrative about challenging the patriarchy going on here. It's not just that there's a woman claiming to be Thor - and doing a damn fine job of it too - there's also the ongoing issue that a revived Odin has returned to Asgard after a long absence, overthrown his much more effective wife as ruler, and is slowly going about destroying everything she worked to build up. One senses that such insanity will not stand.

Jason Aaron's a great writer, and Russell Dautermann is doing some outstanding artwork. I do wish they'd pull the pin and reveal Thor's secret identity, but for this issue at least the rest of the book was strong enough that I didn't mind too much. (4/5)

Marvel. Written by Jason Aaron. Art by Russell Dautermann. Colours by Matthew Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Doctor Who, Giant Days, Lumberjanes, Ms Marvel and Revival.

April 16, 2015

NES30 #28: Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

In Punch-out!! the player controlled aspiring boxer Little Mac as he fought a series of matches leading up to a challenge against the world heavyweight champion. In the American edition, this champion was real-life boxer Mike Tyson, and the game was released for the first few years internationally as Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!. The game itself pre-dates Mike Tyson's name, of course. It was originally an arcade exclusive title created by Nintendo manager Genyo Takeda, and the NES version released in 1987 was actually the fifth iteration of the franchise.

April 15, 2015

The Pull List: 15 April 2015, Part I

For the last few years Valiant has been a widely ignored creative force in American superhero comics. When they launched, it was with subtle re-imaginings of old characters from the last Valiant Entertainment: Archer and Armstrong, Quantum and Woody, Ninjak, X-O Manowar, and so on. These weren't particularly famous characters compared to Marvel and DC, but in many respects that helped the company. They were free to bring them back in genuinely fresh and interesting ways, and for a couple of years now Valiant has been publishing some brilliant inter-connected superhero books. It's an expanded universe that's still small enough that your average comic book reader could probably afford to buy all of their titles each month.

This month sees the next stage for the popular character Bloodshot commence, with Jeff Lemire and Mico Suavan's Bloodshot Reborn.

Bloodshot Reborn features Ray Garrison. He used be Bloodshot, a super-powered government assassin. Now he's an ordinary man, working as a motel handyman during the day and lying awake at night - tormented by the memory of all the people he has killed. When a random killing spree is undertaken by a stranger wearing Bloodshot make-up, Ray finds himself irresistibly drawn back towards the life he had willingly left behind.

The beauty of this first issue is that it clearly functions as an effective sequel to the monthly Bloodshot comic, yet it also works exceptionally well as a starting point for new readers. That's something Valiant really get that Marvel and DC often don't: every comic book is a first issue for somebody. Obviously as issue #1 this is a strong entry point, but to be honest I've found every Valiant comic I've read this month to be just as easy to get into.

Jeff Lemire's script is great: it re-introduces the character and rapidly fills the reader in all of the required back story. Mico Suavan's artwork is fantastic: it's richly detailed, and atmospheric. If you haven't sampled Valiant's stuff before, this seems as good a place as any to start. If you enjoy well-told, original superhero comics, they're consistently doing some of the best in the business. (5/5)

Valiant. Written by Jeff Lemire. Art by Mico Suavan. Colours by David Baron.

Under the cut: reviews of The Fly: Outbreak, Star Trek and Unity.

The Crogan Chronicles: Catfoot's Vengeance (2015)

For some years now Chris Schweizer has been writing and illustrating a series of excellent graphic novels, all based around the historical ancestors of schoolboy Eric Crogan. With the series moving from black and white to colour, some of the older volumes are getting re-released by Oni Press in new full colour editions. This week sees the release of the first book Crogan's Vengeance, now retitled The Crogan Chronicles: Catfoot's Vengeance to bring it in line with the series as a whole.

After a brief present-day prologue, the action of this graphic novel shifts to the West Indies in the year AD 1701, where sailor Catfoot Crogan suffers a series of misadventures that lead him into a life of piracy - and a fight to the death with the traitorous pirate mate D'Or.

This is a 200-page all-ages story of piracy in the West Indies. It's backed by some solid historical research and beautifully paced. I found in an immensely enjoyable and breezy read; the sort of graphic novel where you're reading quite fast and non-stop to get to the end.

April 14, 2015

Fire and Ice (1983)

The early 1980s were a boom time for American fantasy cinema. While the period only inspired a few genuine hits, such as John Milius' Conan the Barbarian, that didn't stop a whole raft of directors and studios from launching their own potential fantasy blockbusters. One of those directors was independent animation legend Ralph Bakshi, who teamed up with his friend - and noted fantasy illustrator - Frank Frazetta to create Fire and Ice, a deliberately pulpy fantasy saga of warriors, scantily-clad princesses and evil wizards.

The film focuses on war between Icepeak, ruled by Queen Juliana and her sorceror son Nekron, and Firekeep, ruled by the stern warrior king Jarol. Jarol's daughter Teegra is kidnapped by Nekron's soldiers, and it is up to a barbarian named Larn and a mysterious warrior named Darkwolf to rescue her - and to defeat Nekron once and for all.

Oh boy. The clichés. The clichés - they burn.

The Pull List: 8 April 2015, Part III

It's been quite a few years since Firefly departed from television screens, and despite one attempt at a revival it seems pretty likely that the space western TV drama is gone for good. Its fans continue to campaign for more space western goodness - I wonder if many of them have tried out Copperhead.

Copperhead is another space western, although in this case it wears its western influences a bit more boldly on its sleeve. It's set in a small frontier town. There are violent conflicts with the neighbouring indigenous population. It's a fairly rough, lawless community, with one bold, hard-minded sheriff named Clara Bronson trying against all odds to keep social order.

The first story arc was recently collected into a cheaply priced trade paperback, and this past week saw the book continue with its sixth monthly issue. It's the start of a new storyline, and as such a great opportunity for new readers to pick it up and run with it. I strongly recommend that they do: after a slightly shaky beginning this book has gone from strength to strength.

There's plenty to enjoy here: a sheriff balancing law-keeping with motherhood, a son who's befriended the most dangerous person in town, a slightly untrustworthy deputy who's being constantly tempted to betray his boss, a corrupt sheriff, and plenty more. The characters are really strong, and Scott Godlweski's artwork is fantastic. (4/5)

Image. Written by Jay Faerber. Art by Scott Godlewski. Colours by Ron Riley.

Under the cut: reviews of Nameless and ODY-C, plus late reviews of Plunder and Lumberjanes.

April 13, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Kir'Shara"

It's 3 December 2004, and time for Star Trek: Enterprise.

While Commander Tucker (Connor Trinneer) and Ambassador Soval (Gary Graham) head into Andorian space to prevent an interstellar war, Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) and the Vulcan agitator T'Pau (Kara Zediker) make their way across the Vulcan wilderness in a race to reach the capital.

This episode concludes the second Enterprise Season 4 trilogy, and it suffers many of the same problems. Put simply: there's not enough plot included to stretch out to 120 minutes, and there's too great a reliance on shoe-horning in every continuity reference and callback imaginable. The result is an episode where one spends a lot of time drumming one's fingers - save for the moments where one is throwing things at the screen.

The X Files: "The Jersey Devil"

It's 8 October 1993, and time for The X Files.

In "The Jersey Devil" Mulder and Scully travel to Atlantic City, where a dead body has been found with its arm missing. When it becomes clear that local law enforcement don't want the FBI around, Scully returns to Washington while Mulder goes rogue - investigating the possibility of a Neanderthal-like "beast man" hunting the streets at night.

With the announcement that The X Files was returning to television with six all-new episodes, it seemed appropriate to jump back and revisit some old episodes. I started a rewatch of the series some time ago, but stalled after four episodes because I knew the fifth was "The Jersey Devil". There's no point in beating about the bush: this is a really awful episode.

April 12, 2015

The Pull List: 8 April 2015, Part II

I was intrigued by the first issue of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen's Descender, but I am genuinely impressed with the second. This series is set a decade after a galaxy-wide cataclysm brought one interstellar civilization to its knees. Robots are hunted down and destroyed, and a robot designed to look and act like a ten year-old boy has just mysteriously re-activated on a long-dead mining colony.

This issue cleverly jumps back and forth on a page-by-page basis. On one page we can see the boy robot Tim-21 run for his life from a gang of salvagers who have arrived on the colony to destroy him and sell his CPU. On the next page we flash back to see Tim's creation, arrival on the mining colony and growing bond with the family he has been assigned to support. It's a great mixture, because it delivers an exciting action scene and fills out some much-needed back story on the book's lead character.

If you read the first issue and were on the fence, I'd strongly recommend reading this issue and seeing if it impresses you more. It certainly impressed me: strong writing, excellent artwork and a clever narrative structure made this issue an absolute pleasure to read. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Imperium, Kaijumax, Rai, The Surface and Wasteland.

April 11, 2015

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

The story of "Exodus" is one with which Hollywood is very familiar, with multiple studios having produced all manner of feature film and television adaptations. It's not surprising: the story of Moses and the Hebrews' flight from Egypt has all of the elements of a thrilling epic: ancient kingdoms, cruel tyrants and enormous visual spectacle. On top of that it's a highly significant story in the religious texts of millions of people around the world.

The benefit of making a new movie about Moses is that you know there's a certain pre-built audience for the story, and that its various elements have already been proven to attract an appreciative mass audience. The drawback is that you're working within a very crowded piece of creative real estate: what can you bring to the screen that other directors did not? How far can you stretch the story before you begin offending the people whose religious beliefs incorporate it?

Exodus: Gods and Kings, from director Ridley Scott, is the latest attempt to tackle Moses for the big screen. It comes quite a few years after Hollywood's last major attempt (Robert Dornhelm's 2006 miniseries starring Dougray Scott) and benefits enormously from a generous $140m budget. It also suffers from creative indecision: it knows it wants to be an adaptation of the Exodus story, but seems uncertain about its own narrative approach.

The Pull List: 8 April 2015, Part I

Brian Wood is a writer responsible for a number of excellent long-form series. Books like The Massive, Northlanders and DMZ have presented readers with expansive, long-running stories with beginnings, middles and ends. They're generally enormously satisfying works, and this week he's kicked off his latest with Rebels #1.

The book is set in 1775, and follows a young married couple - Seth and Mercy Abbott - on the eve of the American Revolution. It's a setting ripe for drama and intrigue, and certainly Wood dives in head-first with this exceptional first issue. It is realistic, impeccably researched, and beautifully written. It's illustrated with about as much accuracy and skill by Andrea Mutti, supported by Jordie Bellaire's typically wonderful colours.

We get a lot of superhero comics, and recently plenty of science fiction books and a few fantasy epics. We very rarely get historical fiction, which is a shame, because it suits the comic book medium so well. This book looks set to be absolutely outstanding: my advice is to get in from the ground floor. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Darth Vader, Edward Scissorhands, MilesMorales: The Ultimate Spider-Man, Rat Queens and Saga.

April 10, 2015

NES30 #29: Batman: The Video Game

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

In 1989 Batman was everywhere. The release of Tim Burton's live-action feature film knocked the English-speaking world into a Bat-themed frenzy, and for a while there you had no means of escape from that black and gold Bat symbol. It was plastered over t-shirts, posters, record stores, it was on the television, in the cinemas. Everywhere. In every direction you'd look, including in videogame stores.

There were two Batman videogames produced in 1989. The first was simply title Batman, and was developed by Ocean Software for the PC, the Amiga, the Commodore 64, the Atari ST and a bunch of other personal computer formats. The second was Batman: The Video Game, produced by Sunsoft and released for videogame consoles - including the NES. It's this second game that was by far the better of the two.

The Pull List: 1 April 2015, Part II

After a full year of plot twists, red herrings and general attempts at stalling, Batman Eternal finally reveals the villain behind the entire ongoing story. It was pretty easy to guess it was going to be Lincoln March, the villain behind Scott Snyder's earlier "Court of Owls" storyline. What I didn't guess was just how good this final issue was going to be.

This is a no-holds-barred explosive climax, given a few extra pages (and an extra dollar cover price) to drop in a bunch of excellent epilogues for good measure. It does what any comic book of this type should do: it pulls everything together into a tight, stunning finale and sets up its broad cast of characters for the future.

Visually the issue is a deliberate artist's jam, with seven separate artists contributing to the book, in addition to four colourists. Even consulting writers Tim Seeley and Ray Fawkes get in on the act, providing two pages each to the proceedings. Often when a book uses multiple artists it feels like a rushed act. Here it feels like a celebration.

This wasn't the greatest Batman comic ever written, and it regularly slipped into being downright irritating at times, but it ends on a wonderful high. I'd be interested in seeing this team collaborate on a Batman weekly again - and perhaps creating something that's as tightly developed and as entertaining to read as Eternal's final issue. (5/5)

DC Comics Written by James Tynion IV. Story by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV. Consulting writers: Ray Fawkes, Tim Seeley and Kyle Higgins. Art by Eduardo Pansica, Julio Ferreira, Robson Rocha, Guillermo Ortega, David LaFuente, Tim Seeley and Ray Fawkes. Colours by Allen Passalaqua, Gabe Eltaeb, John Kalisz and John Rauch.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin, Batwoman, HaloGen and The Woods.

April 9, 2015

Blake's 7: "Project Avalon"

It's 27 February 1978, and time for episode nine of Blake's 7.

Blake (Gareth Thomas) travels to an ice-covered planet to rescue Avalon, a resistance leader who has been inciting rebellion against the Federation on several worlds. He is unknowingly walking into a trap: Space Commander Travis has already captured Avalon, and has set up a special operation to kill Blake's crew and recover the Liberator for Space Command.

"Project Avalon" is a solid and entertaining episode of Blake's 7. It has some clever ideas to it, and doesn't really do anything wrong. Certainly it's not the most original hour of television ever made, but it has a clear goal and successfully achieves it. It also promises something of an expansion to the series format; an expansion that, in the main, doesn't extend much further than it does here.

April 7, 2015

Paddington (2014)

An immigrant travels to the United Kingdom and finds it a cold and unwelcoming place. I’m not certain that’s the message that was entirely intended by Paddington, but it’s certainly the message that I largely took away from it.

This film adaptation of Michael Bond’s legendary children’s novels is rich in humour and warm performances, but it’s also not afraid to bite the hand that feeds it. The result is a curious mixture: idealistic enough in part to be one of those essentially and proudly British films, but also cynical enough to admit that the ideal of British culture may not be as accurate or as real as some might think. All up it's a tremendously satisfying film: it's narrative may be somewhat simplistic and truncated, but its characters and its attention to detail are first-rate.

The film follows a talking Peruvian bear (Ben Whishaw) who is reluctantly adopted from London's Paddington Station by Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) at the behest of his wife (Sally Hawkins) and children While attempting to locate the explorer who first told his aunt and uncle to visit London, Paddington is targeted for stuffing by a museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman).

April 2, 2015

I Will Buy You (1956)

Masaki Kobayashi is best known as the director of Kwaidan, a widely acclaimed and award-winning Japanese horror film. Before directing that iconic production, however, Kobayashi directed a wide variety of different films - many of which were uncharacteristically provocative for the period in which he was making them. His films addressing Japan's war experience in particular caused significant controversy.

I Will Buy You, released in 1956, is not a war film. Instead Kobayashi turns his attention to one of the biggest post-war phenomenons in Japan: baseball. This pastime was imported as part of the American occupation, and became an unparalleled success.

Kishimoto (Keiji Sada) is a talent scout for the Toho Flowers, a major league baseball team. He is desperate to sign up college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki), but to do so means outsmarting a range of rival scouts, as well as getting past Kurita's girlfriend Fueko (Keiko Kishi) and his avaricious manager Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito) - who has latched onto the young sportsman like a parasite and is exploiting each talent scout for his own financial gain.

April 1, 2015

The Pull List: 1 April 2015, Part I

Since 2012 Valiant Entertainment has been doing a stand-up job of publishing a tight, well-curated line of superhero comics, pretty much entirely derived from their earlier 1990s series. Archer & Armstrong, Quantum & Woody, Ninjak and a bunch of other titles have all presented solid, entertaining storylines with strong artwork and some really nice production values.

Of course producing your own superhero universe is a bit of an uphill battle, since so much of that market is dominated by DC and Marvel; if a reader is looking for something beyond those publishers, they're likely to look for something different to superheroes - no matter how good those superhero comics might be. As a result I think Valiant has travelled under the radar somewhat - praised by people who do read their books, but the problem is that not enough people read them. Let's try to correct that with a look at this week's Valiant release, X-O Manowar #35.

Full points to Valiant for including a fantastically succinct story summary on the first page of this issue. For even a completely ignorant reader who has never read an issue of X-O it makes the succeeding 20 pages clear and easy to follow. What we do have is a massive artificial intelligence moving across the galaxy sterilising entire systems at a time, and one warrior from ancient Rome in a high-powered robot suit standing in their way.

This is well-plotted and immensely entertaining stuff, enhanced with some great old-school artwork - I loved the two-page spread in particular. It's imaginative, iconic, and boldly drawn and presented. This is what superhero comics should always be like: easy to pick up, entertaining to read, and addictive enough to get people coming back to see what happens next. (4/5)

Valiant. Written by Robert Venditti. Art by Diego Bernaro and Ryan Winn with Faucher & Pennington. Colours by Brian Weber with Ulises Arreola.

Under the cut: reviews of some of this week's new comics: Citizen of the Galaxy, Rick & Morty and The X Files. As I'm travelling for the next two weeks, I won't be reviewing any of my standard purchased comics while I'm away. I promise to get back to them on my return.